Andy Garcia still believes in the American promise of prosperity for all. “If you come here and you work hard, there’s a future for you,” he said. “There will always be obstacles, but the opportunity is there.”
In more ways than one, the Cuban-born Garcia, 66, understands the worldview of Billy Herrera, the patriarch he plays in the new Latino-centric take on “Father of the Bride,” streaming on HBO Max. The poignant reinterpretation highlights the generational plight that immigrants and their American-born children face as they try to communicate with one another. The comedy, from the director Gaz Alazraki and the screenwriter Matt Lopez, also manages to avoid depicting Latinos as a monolith.
For his latest lead role, the veteran actor best known for his turns in “The Untouchables,” “The Godfather Part III” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” portrays a proud, self-made Cuban architect whose oldest daughter is about to marry her Mexican sweetheart.
At the same time, Herrera’s wife, Ingrid, played by the singer Gloria Estefan (Garcia’s longtime friend and fellow Cuban exile), announces she wants a divorce, leading Billy to re-examine his inflexible beliefs about masculinity, the work ethic and marriage.
On a recent sunny afternoon at a golf club in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Garcia looked appropriately casual chic in a light-blue button-down shirt and beige slacks. Occasionally enhancing his anecdotes with words in Spanish, he spoke about his father’s thoughts on his profession, breaking ground before inclusion was a Hollywood priority, and staying on the entertainment industry “menu.” These are excerpts from our conversation.
You achieved substantial success long before conversations on representation were as prominent as they are today. What was it like for you at the onset of your career?
It was very difficult for someone with a Hispanic surname because you were never considered. There were exceptions to the rule like Raul Julia, and José Ferrer before him. But for people who weren’t established, it was very hard to be considered for anything other than a Hispanic part. When I started in ’78, there were only about five studios, three networks and PBS; there was no cable. You were typecast and the parts they were writing for Hispanics were predominantly gang members and maids. But they wouldn’t consider me for the gang member roles because I wasn’t physically right: In their minds, gang members were only, in the case of Los Angeles, Chicanos.
When did it feel like you were starting to break through despite the roadblocks?
I was lucky to begin getting some work because I was a member of an improvisational theater group. Casting directors would see me there, and I would land a little thing here and there. But it was very hard to get it going. It took a long time, from ’78 to ’85, to get a part that was integral to the story. When I got “The Untouchables” (1987), I didn’t have to work as a waiter anymore. Before that I was also doing walla groups, which provide all the incidental dialogue in movies. That was my first post-waiter job. It kept my only child back then in Pampers.
Were your parents encouraging or concerned by your choices?
My father was very concerned about me leaving the family [fragrance] business, which I had worked in all my life and was growing rapidly. As a lawyer by trade and a farmer who worked hard all his life to give his kids opportunities and trained his children to take over the business, it was very difficult for him to see that I was going off in another direction.
Not that he wasn’t supportive, but I know he struggled with concern because there was no understanding of what that industry was. It wasn’t like that with my kids. I have two daughters who are actresses. They grew up in it. They understand the pitfalls.
My father had no concept of the entertainment business or acting. To him, an actor was Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable. I’m sure in the back of his mind he said, “I love my son, but he’s no Humphrey Bogart.” [Laughs] My mother, on the other hand, was like, “Go and fly. If you break a wing, come back to heal and then decide.” She was more reckless.
There’s a scene in “Father of the Bride” where your character and Gloria’s talk about the difficulty of passing along your native language, Spanish, to your American-born children. Did that dialogue speak to you personally?
Yes. Growing up we spoke Spanish at home, but we also grew up in Miami, where everybody spoke Spanish. My children have had a harder time with it because no matter how much Spanish we spoke, they always favor English because of the environment. They become more Americanized. They can understand and speak it, but they’re not as fluent. If you’re not on top of it every day and practicing it, the language suffers. We as parents are as much at fault for not ingraining it as much as we should have, because we fall into the pattern of speaking English. We could probably be doing this interview in Spanish, but we’re talking in English.
Have you become the father of the bride in your own family?
Two of my daughters are getting married. [There was] a wedding on June 11, then the movie, and I have another wedding on July 9. I’m the father of bride three times within a 30-day period. When we saw the movie together, my youngest daughter said, “Dad, you’re nothing like this guy in the movie.” And I go, “Really?” That was her impression.
Do you agree with her or does Billy and his mentality remind you of yourself?
He’s an amalgamation of everybody I’ve ever known, including myself, and the traditions of people who come from a conservative background. There’s a psyche that happens with the immigrant populations — in our case we’re political exiles — that you come to this country with a basic understanding that it is a place, with all its flaws and warts, where you’re free to express yourself and to pursue your dreams. We fled, with my parents, like many Cubana to this day fleeing, to seek freedom and opportunities for their families. And when you come here, there is a certain responsibility that you have to honor that freedom and have a strong work ethic and better yourself and your family. That is prevalent in all immigrant stories.
That’s a heavy burden to carry.
My brother René and I, we always kid that because we come from this situation where everything was taken away from our family in Cuba there’s a part of us that always says, “We have to work hard and save because one day they’re going to come and take everything away from us again.” We all have these trigger points subconsciously that become behavioral patterns. They’re ingrained in you since childhood depending on your journey.
Do you long to return to Cuba?
Did you ever consider visiting after the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel to the island for American citizens in 2015?
No. It’s like asking a Jewish person if they’d go back to Nazi Germany. Everybody has their own personal reason to go, and I don’t pass judgment. But I’ve been critical of that regime; if I went, they would use it to say, “See, he believes we’re doing the right thing. He’s here vacationing.” They won’t let us in there to do a concert and speak my mind. But I did go back to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base with Gloria and Emilio [Estefan]. We did a concert for the rafters [Cuban refugees] in 1995. At the time, there were around 16,000 rafters in an interim camp.
One time the U.S. interests section in Havana invited us — at the time there wasn’t an embassy there — to show my movie “The Lost City” [his 2006 film set in Cuba]. I said, “Can you guarantee my safety?” They said, “We cannot.” And I said, “Thanks for the invite.” But I know many people who have gone to Cuba who are in the public eye. The Cuban ones who have gone, they’re watched. They have government people following them around.
You are a prolific performer, playing leads, as in “Father of the Bride,” as well as numerous supporting parts. What’s your philosophy on longevity?
I had a conversation with Tom Hanks at an event one time. We were talking about the business and I said, “Tom, I just want to stay on the menu.” When you open the menu, just let me be one of the choices: an appetizer or a main course. If you can stay on the menu, then you can provide for your family and explore your art form. If you’re off the menu, it’s hard to get ordered. If you’re fortunate, you might be the flavor of the month for a moment, but then you’ve got to keep yourself on the menu. Be there for the long haul, for a body of work.